Summer 2004, Vol. 7, No. 2

Table of Contents
Summer 2004

Quick Links:
Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor:
Shocked, Shocked

Kerry Eucharistes

Tying the Knot in the Bay State

Black Pastors Bridle at Gay Marriage

A Thorn in the Mainline's Side

Still Under God

Kabbalah for Dummies

Breaking Boston's Heart



Black Pastors Bridle at Gay Marriage
by Christine McCarthy McMorris

The day after the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that gay and lesbian couples have the right to be married, few Boston Globe readers can have choked on their morning coffee upon learning that Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley found the decision “alarming.” Nor is it likely that a single water cooler discussion erupted over the statement by Rabbi Howard A. Berman (of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry) that this “is a major battle won.”

If anything jumped out of Michael Paulson’s November 19 article on religious responses to the ruling, it was a comment by Rev. LeRoy Attles, pastor of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge: “We keep slipping from the word of God.” Attles’ reaction signaled the presence of African- American clergy on the conservative side of this battle in the culture war.

To be sure, not all black clerical voices were lifted up in opposition to same-sex marriage. Paulson himself quoted Rev. William G. Sinkford, the first African-American president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, as saying, “I see this the same way I view the US Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education…it is clearly morally right.”

How legitimate was it to treat gay marriage as the latest chapter in the civil rights revolution?

The Supreme Judicial Court made the connection explicit in a February 3 advisory opinion declaring that civil unions would not satisfy its constitutional criteria: “The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal.” In the streets, according to a February 9 story by the Boston Herald’s Thomas Caywood, “hundreds of same-sex marriage supporters sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’”

But the civil rights connection did not sit well with many members of Boston’s black clergy. “It’s absolutely unrelated and I think it’s rather offensive,” Rev. Dr. Alexander D. Hurt of Kingdom Church of God in Brockton told Tom Brenner of the Quincy (Mass.) Patriot Ledger February 5.

On February 8, the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston, the Boston Ten Point Coalition, and the Cambridge Black Pastors Conference released a joint statement demanding that the Massachusetts legislature prohibit gay and lesbian marriages. Rev. Wesley A. Roberts, the Alliance president, told the Globe’s Paulson, “I don’t see this as a civil rights issue, because to equate what is happening now to the civil rights struggle which blacks had to go through would be to belittle what we had gone through as a people.”

Globe columnist Adrian Walker, himself an African American, derided that attitude February 12, praising Roxbury’s state Senator Dianne Wilkerson for telling the constitutional convention, “I know the pain of being less than equal and I cannot and will not impose that status on anyone else.” Any black clergy who felt otherwise, Walker wrote, were “betraying their civil rights past.”

With Massachusetts raising the curtain, a similar pattern of rhetorical warfare over the civil rights legacy played itself out on a front extending from New Paltz, N.Y. to Durham County, North Carolina to Portland, Oregon. Everywhere there was criticism of same-sex marriage by increasingly better organized groups of black clergy, with support for it coming from a smaller group of black religious leaders, usually from outside the larger, historically black denominations.

In Georgia, a coalition of black church leaders held press conferences and rallies in support of a proposed amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage. As Associated Press writer Mark Niesse noted on March 22, “From the cradle of the civil rights movement, several dozen black pastors are voicing their opposition to the gay marriage movement and rhetoric that equates it with the struggle for racial equality.”

No question that the Peach State pastors had political muscle. The amendment, which had gone down to defeat by four votes in February, passed on a second vote on April 1 when four members of the House Legislative Black Caucus, who had abstained the first time around, voted in favor.

San Francisco became the epicenter of press attention on February 13 when its mayor, Gavin Newson, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in an act of civil disobedience that might or might not have impressed Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. By the time the California Supreme Court put an end to the marriage-fest on March 11, 4,037 gay and lesbian couples had tied the knot.

In a flurry of talk show appearances, Newsom, a white Catholic, described his actions as a continuation of the fight against discrimination. As he told Good Morning America April 12, “I’m not interested as a mayor in moving forward with a separate but unequal process for people to engage in marriages.”

On April 15, Don Lattin, the San Francisco Chronicle’s longtime religion writer, wrote a tongue-in-cheek story about 100 evangelical clergy who trekked to City Hall to ask the mayor to “repent.” Rev. Thomas Wang of the Bay Area Chinese Ministerial Prayer Fellowship made the sweeping claim that “[e]ven the great majority of nonchurched Asians, Afro Americans and Hispanics are for traditional marriage and are offended that radical gay rights activists have hijacked the civil rights movement.”

To be sure, the perceived misappropriation of the civil rights struggle was not the only objection the black clergy had to same-sex marriage. Many pastors quoted in the press based their objections on Scripture.

In Georgia, Cynthia Tucker, the African-American editor of the editorial page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, took note of this in her April 4 column: “By using the Bible to defend bigotry, those black ministers joined the tradition of white preachers who quoted the Scriptures to justify slavery.”

On April 13, the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ, the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination, posted an official proclamation on its website denouncing same-sex marriage—with citations from Genesis (twice), Hebrews, and Corinthians, all in the first paragraph. Nor was this biblical stance confined to the more conservative.

In an April 15 feature story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (“Trouble for Gays in Black Churches; Pastors Say Bible Prohibits Homosexuality”), Rev. Jason Barr, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church, described himself to reporter Frank Reeves as “more liberal” than most of his 3,500-members but explained what he saw as a no-brainer: “Homosexuality is a violation of Scripture.”

Meanwhile, the country’s most famous living African American minister, Rev. Jesse Jackson, stunned many of his progressive supporters by limiting his support of gay rights to civil unions. On April 3, Johanna Weiss reported that in a meeting with Boston Globe editors Jackson suggested that the experience of slavery still shaped current black opinion on the issue, adding somewhat obscurely, “The comparison with slavery is a stretch in that some slave masters were gay.” A couple of weeks later he told an audience at the Harvard Law School, “In my community, marriage means a man and a woman.”

Anyone who had paid attention to a Pew Research Center poll published in July of 2003 already knew that a majority of African Americans believed homosexuality to be a lifestyle choice (58 percent) and objected to gay marriage (64 percent). The only group polled with higher numbers on these questions was white evangelicals.

Republicans sat up and took notice of both the polls and the debate in the press, hoping for an opportunity to improve the anemic 10 percent of African Americans who pulled the lever (or poked the chad) for George W. Bush in 2000. Given the expected closeness of the upcoming election, a small increase in black support in the Midwest, or a lack of enthusiasm about candidate Senator John Kerry, might make the difference between one term and two.

On May 17, President Bush read a statement commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and later that same day called on Congress to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would alter the Constitution to reserve marriage for opposite-sex couples.

Writing the same busy day, Adelle M. Banks of the Religion News Service reported on two Washington, D.C. press conferences held in support of the amendment and to protest the first same-sex marriages taking place in Massachusetts. Pointing out that members of the black clergy were in the forefront of the speakers, Banks quoted Bishop Paul S. Morton of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship as saying, “We represent God.” She also noted that both events were organized by (mostly white) conservative groups: the Traditional Values Coalition and the Alliance for Marriage.

The Alliance, which drafted the first version of the Federal Marriage Amendment, made much of having as a board member Rev. Walter Fauntroy, the first District of Columbia delegate to the House of Representatives since Reconstruction and an organizer of both the historic 1963 March on Washington and the evangelical Promise Keepers. Prominently featured on the group’s website (, Fauntroy testified before Congress in support of the amendment, claiming that same sex marriage hurt black families.

“Don’t confuse my people who have been the victims of deliberate family destruction by giving them another definition of marriage,” Fauntroy was quoted as saying, in a March 1 op-ed piece in the Denver Post by Glenn T. Stanton of Focus on the Family.

In reaction, Keith Boykin, former special assistant to President Clinton and a leading gay black activist, formed the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) to give a voice to African-American gay men and lesbians. The organization immediately went on line with its website ( and began issuing press releases and giving interviews designed to counteract anti-gay comments by African Americans that had dominated media coverage.

As Boykin put it in an article in the Village Voice May 24, “Far too many black gays and lesbians maintain a truce with the church that allows them to serve quietly, and this conspiracy of silence enables the church to remain simultaneously the most homophobic institution in the black community and the most homo-tolerant.”

By June, the NBJC was routinely sought out by reporters for an opposing opinion. It also succeeded in persuading a number of well-known African Americans to come out, if not in favor of same-sex marriage at least in opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment. Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who had been a key speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, all publicly denounced the proposed amendment. Institutionally, so did the country’s two most important surviving civil rights organizations—the NAACP and the Urban League.

By July 14, when a procedural Senate debate to introduce a vote on the amendment fell short by 12 votes, journalists were doing a good job of presenting a diversity of African American viewpoints on the issue. In Sherri Williams’ July 2 Columbus Dispatch article, for example, there was Rev. Henry Leftridge, president of the Baptist Pastors Conference of Columbus (“It is the target of the devil to reinvent the family”) versus black gay activist James Champyn (“It's hypocritical to preach racial tolerance and preach homophobia”).

Still, missing from the coverage—and the polling data—was a deeper portrait of African Americans’ varying experiences of religion and how these might affect views on same-sex marriage. Many articles spoke about a generic “black clergy,” without reporting on the size, history, or beliefs of a minister’s particular denomination. Most failed to mention any differences between the views of evangelical and mainline adherents, not to mention Muslim, secular, or Catholic African Americans.

As to the possible effect of the same-sex marriage debate on the African-American vote in November, it was clear that the GOP, vowing to bring a new marriage bill to the House for a vote in October, thought the issue had traction with black Americans. In pursuing the bill, Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah told the Salt Lake Tribune July 15, “Republicans were reaching out to a constituency that usually favors Democrats—black ministers.”

How high hopes really were could be questioned, however.

On March 15, Rev. Fauntroy, in an interview with Washington Post staff writers Phuong Ly and Hamil R. Harris, first stayed with the game plan, describing same-sex marriage as an “abomination.” But when questioned on the election, he answered: “This is the last thing I am going to think about when I’m in the voting booth.”

It may have been Rev. Al Sharpton who had the best read on black voters when he told the Democratic Convention in July, “The issue of government is not to determine who may sleep together in the bedroom, it’s to help those that might not be eating in the kitchen.”

  Hit Counter